Preventing the Nightmare of Workplace Violence

Jan 24, 2019

By Mark Vickers

Too often, employers don't see it coming. A violent incident explodes into the workplace and, in the worst cases, causes the kinds of tragedies that lead to front-page headlines.

Those worst-case scenarios are not as rare in the U.S. as everyone would like them to be. In fact, there were 516 workplace homicides in 2006 alone. Yet, homicides are an extreme aspect of violence, a larger problem that has become all too common in the U.S. (Thilmany 2007). Fully half of U.S. firms with 1,000 employees or more reported an incident of workplace violence within a 12-month period, according to the Survey of Workplace Violence Prevention, 2005 from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The BLS study also found that of 7.1 million private employers surveyed (which includes employers of all sizes), 4.8% reported a violent workplace incident. Of these, 34% reported some effect on the workplace caused by the incident, with 8% reporting a change in workplace productivity (BLS 2006).

The Importance of Policy in Preventing Violence

Although worker-on-worker violence accounts for less than 10% of total workplace homicides (Lieber 2007), this type of violence is influenced the most by workplace violence prevention policies. Between 90% and 95% of employees will comply with a policy against workplace violence if they are made aware of one, says Dennis A. Davis, president of Help Center LLC, a training and consulting service. Dennis recommends that the first part of a successful program to prevent workplace violence is an established policy ("Clear Policy," 2006).

But about 70% of the establishments surveyed by the BLS do not have a program or policy for dealing with workplace violence. Of the 29% that do, 23% have written policies and 11% report having a verbal policy. The survey does show greater preparedness among government and larger organizations, with 78% of state governments having workplace violence prevention policies and 86% of large organizations having such policies (BLS 2006).

Be Aware, Be Prepared

Awareness programs are also critical. Many companies don't put violence prevention programs in place until after an occurrence, especially in regard to worker-on-worker violence (Smith 2007). "Intervention before is much better, but this means putting money in something where nothing is apparently happening," said Vittorio Di Martino, coauthor of Violence at Work from the International Labour Office. He stresses that waiting until after an occurrence is much more costly. Experts agree that there are almost always early warning signs and that training to identify these signs should be a part of any early-detection program (Smith 2007).

The best early warning system is fellow workers, who are most likely to witness erratic behavior, sudden silence or other signs that there is a problem. Many firms, like Pitney Bowes, have anonymous helplines and other systems that enable workers to report erratic behavior or signs of substance abuse without identifying themselves. HR executives do the follow-ups discreetly (Hymowitz 2007).

Managerial training is another important part of workplace violence prevention. Frontline managers should be trained to identify certain types of behaviors that are red flags. Training at this level also communicates to employees that workplace violence is considered by management as a serious and actionable concern (Thilmany 2007).

W. Barry Nixion, SPHR, executive director of the National Institute for the Prevention of Workplace Violence Inc., says that employees should know to report threats or incidents and be assured that the company is serious about dealing with problems. He suggests tying risk assessment audits for potential workplace violence to periodic safety audits, and he recommends that companies maintain some control over access to their workplaces, such as via sign-in sheets or camera systems. Nixion says that zero-tolerance policies are reactive and that a more aggressive focus on prevention is needed in developing a proactive policy (Gurchiek 2007).

A proactive policy will have checks in place at critical points in the employment process. Psychologist William Berman, a director at Applied Psychological Techniques, says prevention should begin even before a job candidate is hired. Berman argues that the first step is conducting background checks and asking former employers and co-workers if the applicant has any history of violence or abusive behavior (Henneman 2006).

Managers should also be aware of the critical times when violence is more likely: during disciplinary proceedings, demotions, layoffs, dismissals, and after being turned down for promotion (Lieber 2007). Before a potentially violent or dangerous employee is dismissed, a team of qualified professionals should carefully plan and complete an evaluation, indicates Gerard P. Panaro of the law firm Howe & Hutton, Ltd. Panaro (2007) states that such involvement should include more than HR and employment law counsel. He suggests the creation of a rapid response team that should be consulted immediately when a potentially violent threat is reported, including "managers, supervisors, HR professionals, legal counsel, medical (including psychological, and/or psychiatric), security, perhaps the police, investigators, and outplacement or benefits specialists." Panaro states that, while termination should not be immediate or summary, a potentially violent employee can be put on paid or unpaid evaluative leave to remove the threat from the workplace.

The overall message of the experts can be boiled down to the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. A proactive workplace violence prevention program can help protect a company from losses both financial and personal.
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Documents referenced in this article include the following:

Bureau of Labor Statistics. Survey of Workplace Violence Prevention, 2005. October 27, 2006.

"Clear Policy Against Workplace Violence Is Employer Necessity, Panelist Tells ABA." Health & Safety News, March 20, 2006, pp. 298–299.

Gurchiek, Kathy. "Shootings Underscore Need for ‘Aggressive Focus on Prevention.'" Society for Human Resource Management. April 9, 2007.

Henneman, Todd. "Ignoring Signs of Violence Can Be Fatal, Costly Mistake." Workforce Management, February 27, 2006, pp. 10–11.

Hymowitz, Carol. "Bosses Must Learn to Recognize, Confront Troubled Employees." [Wall Street Journal Online]. April 24, 2007.

Lieber, Lynn. "Workplace Violence—What Can Employers Do to Prevent It?" Employment Relations Today, Fall 2007, pp. 91–100.
Panaro, Gerard. "Letting Go of Potentially Violent Employees." HR Advisor, July/August 2007, pp. 42–47.

Smith, Rhonda. "Interest in Violence Prevention Grows, but Few Companies Have Established Plans." Bulletin to Management, May 1, 2007, pp. 137–138.

Thilmany, Jean. "In Case of Emergency." HR Magazine, November 2007, pp. 79-83

About the Author(s)

Mark Vickers is an associate with the Institute for Corporate Productivity.